Political Friendship and Rivalry in the U.S. and the U.K.

I detest every bit of legislation he has put forward and he openly loathes my entire political outlook. We had lunch last week; he’s actually rather charming.

So commented a friend in the UK parliament. I assume similar sentiments informed Lexington’s analysis of U.K. versus U.S. cross-party relationships, which contains this acute observation:

After they heap scorn and vitriol upon one another in the debating chamber, members of the British Parliament retire companionably together to the bars and tea rooms of the Palace of Westminster.

Lexington contrasts this public vs private inversion of behavior in Parliament with its parallel in the U.S. Congress, where opposing politicians who exhibit “exaggerated decorum” during C-Span covered debates can be absolute vicious with each other in private. Like me, Lexington laments the end of bipartisan friendship in Washington. In the U.K, such friendships are easier in part because:

British politicians accept the rules of a simple game: the ruling party governs (occasionally in coalition) while the opposition bides its time.

Meanwhile in the U.S., many Tea Party Congress members believe that the vote of 90 million people in an off year election nullifies the legitimacy of a President and party elected two years earlier by a vote of over 130 million people. They came to destroy, not to befriend.

Despite agreeing with most of Lexington’s article, I find it glosses over an important US-UK difference in intra-party political friendships. As the Congress gets more polarized and each party feels constantly attacked by an external enemy, friendships within parties often grow extremely strong, akin to the friendships of war veterans from the same unit. In the UK, intra-party friendship can be more difficult for politicians to maintain because of the Parliamentary system of government. At any moment, a Minister or Secretary can stumble and immediately return to being a back bench MP while one of his fellow party members climbs over his dead political body to join the front bench. Hence, in the words of Jim Hacker of Yes, Minister fame, in British politics “The opposition is in front of you, but the enemy is behind you”.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.